An unique photograph of the great Nearco leaving his bomb shelter in wartime Great Britain.
(Photo : The All Clear by Anscomb)
“The story of Nearco is a story of one man’s work of a lifetime.”
Nearco was bred and trained by Signor Federico Tesio, an apparently chauvinistic but gifted ex-Italian cavalry officer, who was almost solely responsible for putting the Italian-bred racehorse on the international map. Tesio was said to be a short, fussy, fastidious man who combined an egocentric nature with a brilliant mind and an ill-concealed contempt for his intellectual inferiors. In wartime 1915, he travelled to the English bloodstock sales and bought the mare Catnip for 75 guineas. Although an unprepossessing individual who gained her only success at the races in a £100 nursery, Catnip was nonetheless beautifully bred, by the 1906 English Derby winner, Spearmint, out of Sibola, winner of the 1899 1000 Guineas. These days, a filly of such breeding would stand you in at something close to 200,000 guineas.
Catnip proceeded to breed a slew of important winners, among them a filly called Nogara, heroine of the Italian 1000 and 2000 Guineas (the latter against the colts.) More importantly, Nogara became the dam of Nearco, and as so often happens, there was an element of luck in Nearco’s breeding. One thing Tesio was especially conscientious about, was the mating of his mares, and after considerable thought he decided to send Nogara to Lord Derby’s outstanding stallion, Fairway, but he was late in applying for a nomination. The stud were rigidly strict in limiting Fairway to 42 mares, and an outraged Tesio reluctantly agreed to take up Lord Derby’s offer of a nomination to Fairway’s own brother, Pharos, who was standing in France. The resultant foal was small, but strong, stocky and robust. Back in the lush paddocks of Olgiata near Rome, the youngster soon stood out as the dominant one in the pecking order, and his companions quickly learnt to respect him.
Tesio (the trainer) was something of a modern day Mike de Kock, decades before his time, and one of the basic tennets of his training regimen, was to have his horses in the peak of fitness. Nearco was able to absorb all the work Tesio grafted into him, and would shrug off the daunting exertions expected of him with his brilliant speed. He won all seven of his two-year-old races with considerable ease, and at three he improved again. He won the Italian 2000 Guineas by six lengths, the Italian Derby by a distance, and went on to to win both the Gran Premio d’Italia and the Gran Premio di Milano. A week later he faced his greatest challenge in the Gran Prix de Paris at Longchamps at a distance of 1 mile seven furlongs. In truth, Tesio never considered Nearco a staying type, and always believed his victories over ground came courtesy of his class rather than his stamina. His rivals in Paris included the English Derby winner Bois Roussel, and the French Derby winner Cillas. Nearco took the lead early in the straight and drew away effortlessly. At the line he had a length and a half to spare over the good stayer Canot, with Bois Rousel third. In that moment, he became the undisputed champion of Europe.
With the dark clouds of war looming over Europe, Tesio sold Nearco four days later to the English bookmaker, Martin Benson, for the then world record price of £60,000. A handsome, perfectly moulded horse now standing 16 hands, he immediately made his mark as a stallion at Beach House Stud, Newmarket. For fifteen consecutive years he was in the top ten stallions, leading all sires twice. His best racing sons were Dante, Nimbus and Sayajirao, though at stud, it was the less effective racehorses, Nasrullah, Mossborough and Royal Charger, which had the greatest long-term impact on the breed. His male-line descendants from those stallions included Sir Ivor, Nijinsky, Mill Reef, Roberto, The Minstrel and Shirley Heights. He was also three times the leading sire of broodmares.
However, his greatest legacy to the breed came courtesy of a horse who was born on the other side of the Atlantic, and became a Canadian champion. This was the E.P. Taylor-bred Nearctic, whose conception came about in a novel way. Mr Taylor’s agent was instructed to secure a service to Nearco before the December sales, on the understanding that Taylor (founder of Carling Breweries) would buy the best mare in the sale as his part of the bargain, and send her to him. It was only after some hard bargaining that the Canadian’s request was agreed to, yet in the end, at something of a premium, he managed to secure two services for consecutive seasons. Taylor proceeded to buy Lady Sybil, a daughter of the legendary stallion, Hyperion, and she was sent to Nearco’s court.
The first outcome was of little account, but the second was Neartic, who became not only the champion of his generation, but also multiple champion sire of Canada, where he was foaled. As good a racehorse as Neartic turned out to be, his lasting legacy, arguably the greatest gift ever to the thoroughbred tribe, was a little horse called Northern Dancer, and the rest, as they say, is history. Northern Dancer alone occupies the pedigrees of 85% of the world’s racehorse population in the first five generations.
Considering that Nearco also sired the exceptional stallions, Nasrullah and Royal Charger, founders respectively of the great dynasties of Bold Ruler, Seattle Slew, Roberto and Halo, it’s fair to say that his name must feature in more than 90% of the ancestries of thoroughbreds. It’s doubtful that any single species on this earth has been influenced in such a remarkable way.
Yet that was not the end of Tesio’s work. In the early 1950s, he bred another colt, just as good if not better, who was to put a seal on Tesio’s genius. Ribot was unbeaten in 16 starts, including a King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, and two Prix de l’Arc de Triomphes, and while Tesio knew him as a somewhat unprepossessing foal, he never lived to see Ribot at the races. From a personal perspective then, Nearco’s famous day in Paris was the apex of a lifetime of achievement for the doughty little man who was to change not only the way we thought about breeding, but also revolutionised the art of training racehorses.